Where are We Going? Building Strategy in Complex Organisations

Strategic planning in complex organisations

There are different schools of thought when it comes to strategy. Some say strategy is simply planning: defining the outcomes you want—being mindful of the organization’s capabilities and culture—then charting a course for how you’re going to get there.

Others say it is positioning how you are to compete, or sidestep your competition, or align your efforts to seize opportunity. And there are those who see it as linked to your why, tied to the idea that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there

Kelly O’Shanassy is the CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), a highly respected executive with a career spanning business, government and the not-for-profit sectors. She is uniquely placed to talk about the challenges of developing strategy where community, business and government interests can be very broad.

She believes an organisation’s vision is paramount because it provides direction and a sense of purpose.

‘It’s your North Star. Or Southern Cross if you’re an Aussie. At ACF our vision is ridiculously big, which is a world where wildlife and people and our rivers and trees and forests thrive and live in harmony together. Your vision gives you that big direction. And then what we have done is we break it down into goal areas over one, three, and ten years, and those goals are much more tangible.’

Then you have the purpose, the reason why you need the aspiration. That’s what binds the team together.

For Kelly that’s staring at the Yarra River. That reminds her what she’s trying to protect. So it’s vital to have a vision that actually connects you to something.  If the vision is too lofty and abstract how are you going to measure your efforts to achieve it?

Cutting through complexity

The Australian Conservation Foundation is a complex organisation with a membership, a supporter base, a donor base, an elected council, and an 11 member board.

Kelly says that’s not an entity, that’s 11 different people with up to 11 different views on what the strategy or vision should be. So the individuality creates complexity. Another source of complexity is that ACF is a change-making, or advocacy, organisation.

On every wall they post a page with their purpose and change strategy on one side and their vision and goals on the other.

She says it’s important to write this down because these are the areas you build capability around. And if you have that level of clarity it can cut through the complexity.

The tradeoff between efficiency and diversity

Another component of complexity is diversity.

Diversity makes for better decisions and a better organisation. Kelly thinks it’s less efficient to start with, but that the effectiveness and impact is greater. If you have a board with lots of different views on what your goals or strategy should be, then tackle that early. You’ll get the impact and effectiveness sooner.

The politisation of strategy

She’s been involved in setting very long-term government strategy, like water planning for a 50 year time horizon. But government has become so politicised that it’s much more  about winning the battle of the day.

Yet she acknowledges government bodies are doing some of the most innovative work. ‘Australia is a world leader in many elements of urban water and even rural water management. So I think government is not one whole thing.

‘But it’s harder to set strategy in government because if it’s important enough, it’s going to be set by the politicians. I want to see more of those incredible politicians who are willing to speak outside the day, month, or year into ideas of what might be great for the country 10, 20, 30 years into the future. I think if you had leaders who did that more in our politics then that might also lead to change in the structure of government and how we might form government agencies to deliver on those big ideas.

‘But  the appointment of leaders within agencies is politicised, and we’ve uncovered time after time after time how ministerial decisions on the environment are just completely politicised.

Making vision sticky

How do you hold people to that vision? How do you make it sticky so that you don’t end up getting mission drift?

Kelly says you have to make your vision very compelling to start with. It needs to be something you can repeat over and over again, maybe using different words, but the same sentiment.

And then you set up accountability in your organisation around your vision and goals, so your KPIs and other metrics will be set up around those things. Then people will keep being drawn back to delivering on those.

It’s important to celebrate little successes, which drive an aspirational, productive culture. Celebrating the little wins contributes to the big win.

Strategy as a touchstone

Is a complex organisation really a downward pressure on making strategy difficult? Or is it just a convenient excuse for those who can’t drive strategic vision?

Kelly emphasises that if your strategy and vision are not your touchstone, then you’re never going to be able to bring people together. It has to stay high level and agile because a planning and predicting strategy is no longer the case in this exponentially changing world. You have to experiment and adapt. But you must know who you are. And your why. Because if you don’t know that, nothing else is going to work.

Good strategy is more than just defining success and saying how you are going to get there. Reconciling what you can truly do and what you can’t will enable you to set a vision and deliver on it.

In complex organisations, that collective process needs time, patience, leadership and honesty.

If you want to further explore the topic of building robust strategy, you might like the podcast and article with Stan Krpan, CEO Solar Victoria, on ‘Strategic Planning in a Reactive World: Is strategy still important for Government.’

Guest:Kelly O’Shanassy
Organisation:Australian Conservation Foundation
Best Quote:“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there”
More Info:Kelly on Twitter